Manzanita is an evergreen shrub in the chaparral biome of western North America. It is characterized by smooth, orange or red bark and stiff, twisting branches. There are about 60 species of manzanita, ranging from ground-hugging coastal and mountain species to small trees up to 20 feet tall. Manzanitas bloom in the winter to early spring and carry berries in spring and summer. The berries and flowers of most species are edible.
Traditional uses of the plant include collecting the berries, drying them, and grinding them up into a coarse meal. Fresh berries and branch tips were also soaked in water and drunk as a refreshing cider. When the bark curls off, it can be used as a tea for nausea and upset stomach. The younger leaves are sometimes plucked and chewed by hikers to deter thirst. Original Americans used Manzanita leaves as toothbrushes.
The wood is notoriously hard to cure, mostly due to cracking against the grain, giving it few uses as timber. The slow growth rate and many branchings further decrease the sizes available. Some furniture and art employ whole round branches, which reduces cracking and preserves the deep red color.
The dead wood decays slowly and can last for many years. Sunlight smooths and bleaches manzanita to light grey or white, rendering it superficially akin to animal bones. Because of this and the stunted growth of many species, manzanita is often collected in its more unusual shapes, giving it the nickname mountain driftwood.
Manzanita wood is also used as perches for parrots and other large pet birds. The branches of the larger species are extremely long-lasting for this purpose.
Some aquarium keepers use sandblasted manzanita as driftwood in planted aquaria because of its attractive forked growth and its chemical neutrality. If properly cleaned and cured, it holds up well over extended periods of submersion.
Dry manzanita wood is excellent for burning in a campfire, barbecue, fireplace, or stove. It is dense and burns at a high temperature for long periods.
Some manzanita species are among the rarest plants in the world. Arctostaphylos hookeri subspecies ravenii (also known as Presidio manzanita) is the most endangered and restricted plant in the mainland United States. In 1987 only one specimen remained, at a secret location in the Presidio of San Francisco National Historic Landmark District in San Francisco, California. This plant has since been successfully cloned.